The Divorce Will Be Televised

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Jun 24, 2009 6:06 PM
The Divorce Will Be Televised

America's most televised parents of multiples made it official: They are splitting up. Kate minus Jon makes nine.

Yes, the children will suffer. But no doubt it will be good for ratings.

Well, there are worse tragedies than divorce, bigger problems in the world than the things that led Jon and Kate to break up their own family, as the headlines remind us. Even as Kate and Jon called it quits, a young Iranian woman named Neda captured the fickle attention of the world for her simple and defiant act of courage. Some things are worth dying for.

What kind of freedom will they die for in Iran? Political freedom -- the freedom to vote, to assemble, to speak? Economic freedom -- the freedom to produce, to create? Are these freedoms separable from the freedom to declare oneself free of obligation -- the freedom to divorce, to break up your own family? Is there some vision of human freedom that does not lead to the triumph of desire over duty, of aspiration over commitment?

This weekend, as Jon and Kate made their big announcement, I attended the 50th wedding anniversary of a close family member, who had married in India. The wedding was arranged. One of the children, making the toast, asked:

"How does a marriage survive 50 years? Here is what I have learned: Meet your wife on your wedding day. Surround yourself with family and friends. Wait."

I understood what he meant. I'm asked by the young, "How do you avoid divorce?" The first and most important answer is: Don't go down to the courthouse. If neither of you does, there won't be any divorce.

Oh, they follow up, "What we really mean is 'How do we create a happy marriage?'" That's a noble goal, but really a different question.

As we watch, the world is dividing between people who really do marry, in the core meaning of the word, and people who have weddings to celebrate their good fortune in enjoying a happy and loving relationship. The world is dividing between people who commit and people who merely celebrate commitment. Every divorce in our own circle -- or our faux family on TV -- asks us to ask anew the question: What makes the difference?

No one can blame Kate and Jon personally. After all, we live in a divorce culture -- only a slight majority of marriages make it "till death do us part." And 40 percent of American babies are now born to women (and men) who dispense with marriage altogether. Well, that is one way to avoid the trauma of divorce.

The family generates love like no other, and it is the place we therefore celebrate love, but in its deepest conceptual meaning the family is the place of obligation, of duty, of unchosen relationship. Our friends are the people in our lives only because we love them and chose them. Our children are not ours because we love them; we love them because they are ours.

A wedding is the weak link in the family system -- the extraordinary attempt to make biological strangers into closest kin. For me ,every divorce -- not just Jon and Kate's -- prompts questions:

Is being a wife merely a role I've chosen, a thing I enact so long as it benefits me? Or can I do something else with marriage -- import another human being into the essence of my identity -- make being a wife something I am, like being a mother, not merely something I do? Is it possible to really become one flesh?

More questions: Is this kind of irrevocable prime commitment a good thing? Or is it an unreasonable imposition on our human freedom?

Marshall McLuhan was wrong: The revolution will be twittered; it is the divorce that will be televised.